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Good Posture: A cornerstone of good preventative health

Good posture, with shoulders rolled back and chest pressed forward, may be how you greet a client or interview a new executive. First impressions are important after all, and you want to exude confidence and professionalism. But what about when you sit at your desk for hours during a tiring work day? The fatigue created after a long day may not show in your performance at work, but is most likely present in your posture.

Previously we discussed the benefits of stand up desks, and why it is important to move more throughout the day. But for the amount of time we are sitting, what are we doing to the muscles supporting us? If our alignment is not correct, the answer is much more than we may know.

The Mayo Clinic
states that good posture helps to maintain your spine's natural curves. The proper alignment of this curvature keeps all parts balanced and supported, and prevents strain on supporting muscle groups. You might believe that this is the type of alignment your current posture already supports, but you may unknowingly be out of alignment, which creates bad habits in your body that you are not yet aware of.

The Impact:
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke found that "approximately 80 percent of adults experience low back pain at some point in their lifetimes." In fact, according to the Global Burden of Disease in 2010, "low back pain is the single leading cause of disability worldwide, and one of the most common reasons for absenteeism from work." One might expect that jobs involving more physical work than is required in an office position would be responsible for more back pain. However, as Dr. Thomas Cohn, medical practitioner for CDI Sartell (provides interventional pain management services), cited in the Minnesota Physical Medicine Blog, "researchers in a study on spine-related pain stated that desk workers outnumbered field workers by a rate of four to one in experiencing spinal pain. Additionally, one in four participants with a desk job had more than one spine-related problem, including neck and back pain, or shoulder pain and finger numbness."

The misalignment that many adults create in their posture during prolonged sitting at a desk can cause immediate problems such as headaches and jaw pain, shoulder/back problems, and sore muscles up and down the spine. When you slouch, the muscles and ligaments have to work harder to keep the spine balanced, stabilized, and protected. The extra work on these muscles can strain them, leading to muscle tightness and fatigue. Because living with chronic pain can significantly impact your life, many people take pain management measures to address the issue. Those measures can be quite costly. A study conducted by Janet K. Freburger, Ph.D., a research associate and fellow at the Sheps Center and a research scientist at the UNC Institute on Aging, and Timothy S. Carey, M.D., director of the Sheps Center, found that the total costs of low back pain in America are more than $100 billion annually. Given the high total cost of low back pain management, one would hope that the current treatment plans would provide significant relief. But Dr. Timothy S. Carey believes that "current treatments overall do not seem to be very effective."

The long term and more serious issues that can arise in the body from bad posture can be as significant and costly as spinal curvature, subluxations, or incomplete or partial dislocations of a joint or organ that can stress and irritate spinal nerves causing nerve constriction, blood vessel constriction, and gastrointestinal pain. Reduced lung function can also result. Dr. Rene Cailliet, former director of University of Southern California's Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, finds that "leaning or hunching forward too much can affect your lung capacity by as much as 30 percent." At first, this should not be too alarming. According to Jonathan P. Parsons, M.D., professor of internal medicine, associate director of Clinical Services and director of the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at the Ohio State University Asthma Center, "the lungs are over-engineered to accomplish the job that we ask them to do. In healthy people without chronic lung disease, even at maximum exercise intensity, we only use 70 percent of the possible lung capacity." But with age, our lung capacity naturally declines. "By the age of 50, our lung capacity may be reduced by as much as 50 percent." At that point, the 30% lung capacity that could be affected by bad posture becomes much more important.

What You Can Do:
The costs these short-term and long-term health issues place on the body and wallet are not insignificant and affect virtually all Americans at one point in their lifetime. The question is: what type of measures can we take to prevent those outcomes? Prevention begins with creating good habits in the body to ensure we maintain alignment, especially while sitting behind a desk. This is what proper alignment looks like:
  • Ensure the back is aligned against the back of the office chair. Avoid slouching or leaning forward, especially when fatigued.
  • The office chair should be ergonomically designed to properly support the back. If not, use an adjustable lumbar support or pillow to support the curvature of the low spine.
  • Arms should be flexed at a 75 to 90 degree angle at the elbows.
  • Knees should be even with hips, or slightly higher when sitting. Ensure thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Keep both feet flat on the floor. If there's a problem with feet reaching the floor comfortably, a footrest can be used.
  • Ensure shoulders are squared off to the computer's monitor, and that the monitor's position is in line with your vision, allowing for only a 20 degree angle from baseline. (provided by

In addition to being aware of proper alignment, there are additional measures you can take to instill this type of posture so that it is not something you have to constantly be mindful of. Harvard Medical School suggests that imagery, in particular, can assist in helping to form good habits. This begins with a consciousness of how the body is aligned at any given time, having both mental and physical awareness. This is something to practice, as it does not happen overnight. Once proper posture becomes your body's habitual position, this will require much less conscious effort. Also, routine upper-back and chest exercises assist in strengthening supporting muscles. Stretching these muscles on a routine basis is crucial to relieve tension and prevent injury.

Doctors and chiropractors can offer a great deal of help as well. But if you are looking for another form of non-medical pain relief for more advanced conditions, my colleague Jane Howze beat Sciatica ("pain, tingling, or numbness produced by an irritation of the nerve roots" according to WebMD) fourteen years ago through her discovery of the Egoscue Method which believes posture misalignment creates pain. Egoscue practitioners offer exercise programs that put the body in strong postural alignment.

The best cure is, as they say, prevention. Proper alignment through good posture can save you an enormous amount of pain, time, and money.
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